2020 hindsight – Israel’s year in review

The only silver lining, if you can call it that, has been the plethora of humorous coronavirus-spurred memes from around the world.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Knesset, December 2, 2020 (photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Knesset, December 2, 2020
(photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
As of Tuesday night, when the Knesset voted against the bill to postpone the budget, Israel began the countdown to its fourth general election in two years. Some pundits are pointing to this as a sign of political dysfunction. Others are hailing it as democracy in action. But everyone has been noting the “here we go again” aspect of the ongoing fray.
That the news coincided with a sharp spike in coronavirus morbidity, along with threats and then an announcement of another countrywide lockdown, only made matters worse for national morale. A third round of closures that demolishes small businesses and keeps kids at home is the last thing Israelis want. The latest warnings about the COVID-19 mutation, a few cases of which have arrived in Israel from Britain, further contributed to societal malaise.
The only silver lining, if you can call it that, has been the plethora of humorous coronavirus-spurred memes from around the world about everything from the hoarding of toilet paper to Zoom meetings in which participants are only dressed from the waist up.
Misery loves company, and in Israel as elsewhere, the consensus has been that 2020 is the “year that wasn’t.” A review of the past 12 months, however, reveals that this is far from the case, certainly where the Jewish state is concerned. Working our way backwards can provide a bit of perspective.
Let’s start with December. On December 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at Ben-Gurion Airport welcoming the arrival of a plane bearing the first shipment of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. This was the culmination of a $237.5 million deal that he had inked in November with the pharmaceutical giant, for the purchase of eight million doses, sufficient to inoculate nearly half the country’s population. This batch is only the beginning. The prime minister also signed a deal with Moderna for six million doses, enough to vaccinate another three million Israelis. Meanwhile, Israel’s own Institute for Biological Research vaccine, BriLife, is in the midst of advanced clinical trials.
Stunningly, despite surveys indicating fear on the part of much of the public over the safety of the vaccine, as soon as it became available this week to the over-60 crowd and medical personnel, tens of thousands of Israelis rushed to get inoculated. And much of the rest of the population is flooding the health-fund phone lines to make appointments for the shots.
On Wednesday morning, Israel ranked first in the world in the number of COVID-19 vaccination doses administered per 100 people. This turn of events came on the heels of a surprising report by the NGO Start-Up Nation Central showing that Israeli companies broke capital-raising records in 2020, with investments in ventures hitting some $10 billion.
Earlier in the month, on December 3, Netanyahu greeted 316 Ethiopian immigrants who arrived as part of “Operation Tzur Israel” (“Rock of Israel”), to bring the approximately 2,000 others slated to make aliyah by the end of January.
On December 10, Morocco agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Two days later, Bhutan jumped on the bandwagon.
November, too, brought an important development: the assassination of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Though Israel has remained mum on the matter, the targeted killing of the “father of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program” is widely attributed to the Mossad.
One clue among others that lends credence to the assumption is that in 2018 – when Netanyahu revealed the massive trove of documents retrieved by Mossad agents from a warehouse in Tehran – he made a specific reference to the weapons-program chief, saying, “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”
Also in November, the Israel Air Force struck Iranian and Hezbollah military targets in Syria. This followed a similar attack against hostile forces beyond Israel’s northern border in October – two days before Sudan agreed to establish formal ties and normalization with Israel.
ON SEPTEMBER 15, a week before the Jewish High Holy Days – and the imposition of a second coronavirus-inspired lockdown in Israel – representatives from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain joined Netanyahu at the White House to sign the historic Abraham Accords that had been announced in August.
In July, a series of “mysterious explosions” and fires – attributed by foreign sources to Israel – wreaked havoc on Iranian military, nuclear and industrial facilities.
On June 10, a “Group Aliyah Flight” landed in Israel, bringing 51 new immigrants from North America, many of whom said that the pandemic had sparked their final decision to make the move – one they’d been contemplating for a while. And that followed a 100% increase in May, compared to the same month in 2019, in the interest expressed by other US Jews to make Israel their home.
But May saw new immigrants arrive from Ethiopia (119), Ukraine (111) and Russia (41). During that month, as well, Israeli operatives reportedly carried out a cyberattack that shut down Iran’s Shahid Rajaee Port, one of two major shipping terminals in the coastal city of Bandar in the Strait of Hormuz.
April was the month that Netanyahu’s Likud Party signed a coalition agreement with Blue and White, headed by Benny Gantz. In view of the dispersal of the current Knesset, it wasn’t a successful arrangement. But when it was reached, the nation heaved a sigh of relief, after three rounds of inconclusive elections. The last of these took place on March 2, a mere 10 days after the pandemic hit the country.
It was on February 21 that the first Israeli tested positive for COVID-19. She was one of 11 Israelis returning home from what became a vacation-gone-bad on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan, where 3,000 passengers and crew were forced to remain quarantined for weeks, due to an outbreak of the virus on board.
Though a huge story at the time, it feels today like a distant memory from another lifetime. But that’s nothing compared to January, when nobody – other than scientists – had even heard of the “novel coronavirus” that was about to change the course of global history. Furthermore, the year had kicked off on an optimistic note.
US President Donald Trump unveiled his “Peace to Prosperity” plan at the White House, with Netanyahu at his side, in the presence of administration officials and other prominent pro-Israel guests. The details of the “Deal of the Century,” as it had been dubbed, were finally revealed.
Like Trump’s other policies – such as moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal; recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; halting funding to UNRWA, demanding that the Palestinian Authority cease its pay-for-slay policy; and declaring that Israeli settlements are not illegal – his blueprint for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was groundbreaking.
Rather than treating the PA’s corruption and violence as a result of Israeli “occupation,” Trump’s team offered Ramallah a carrot but threatened it with a stick. It was exhilarating for most Israelis to witness Washington smash the mold of the failed “land for peace” paradigm.
Unfortunately, US President-elect Joe Biden and his appointees are going to revert to the old model of appeasing enemies. In this respect, Israelis may come to look back on 2020 with a twinge of nostalgia.
The burgeoning friendship with neighboring Muslim-Arab countries is a blessing that cannot be overstated. The trouble is that relations with Washington are about to take a turn for the worse.
It is understandable for Israelis to be worried about the future and bemoan the past year. But it is a complete distortion of reality to look upon 2020 as a period of pure chaos on the one hand and paralysis on the other.
Indeed, it’s worth pausing from the hysteria for a moment to acknowledge the miraculous achievements made by the Netanyahu-led government, in spite of months of bitter infighting, during the pandemic. If anything, then, this crazy year was characterized by an insane degree of uncanny multitasking.